|Transcript Title||Wilkin, Bill (O2000.18)|
|Interviewee||Bill Wilkin (BW)|
|Interviewer||Peter Ruffles (PR)|
|Transcriber by||Jean Riddell (Purkis)|
Hertford Oral History Group
Recording no: O2000.18
Interviewee: Bill Wilkin (BW)
Date: 1st December 2000
Venue: 132, Ware Road
Interviewer: Peter Ruffles (PR)
Transcriber: Jean Riddell (Purkis)
Typed by: Marjorie Kitchen
************** unclear recording
[discussion] untranscribed material
italics editor’s notes
This recording was not immediately introduced. It starts with miscellaneous snippets. Bill’s voice is not clear and there are times when what he is saying is lost.
BW: Paper – I think it was called the Graphic, it was only published about 3 times [a pictorial paper published for about 3 years. Hertford Museum has a complete run] and then it went out of use. And this thing shows you a man with a **** up his nose and that’s me. I was sitting down and we had the captain of the club and before we had the dinner he wanted to make a presentation before that. He presented a small cup, at the age of 17 I’d been fortunate enough to win and at the same time there was a challenge cup and I managed to get runner up to the challenge cup and Mr Peck who used to be the monumental mason in Fore Street he was the one who won the cup.
Mr Webb who owned Horns Mill was our President. We had these 2 cups and sitting in a row. So, we sat down, Mr Peck had a mic in his hand **** before I could get hold of it they photographed me [this is possibly a microphone he’s referring to]. My uncle gave this (cutting) to me, it was taken out of a newspaper years ago, before 1987.
(chatter about heating)
You live in Hertingfordbury Road – my late uncle’s uncle, name was Burgess, he was a clerk on the railway.
PR: Where in?
BW: I’ll have to look up the number, the far end on the right.
PR: I’ll have to look them up, we’ve got directories – usually I can remember.
BW: Talking about the cup, I managed to find the actual cup (produces it) Captain’s Cup – John Bunyan, not from Pilgrim’s Progress. He used to work at Evan Marks as a watch maker.
PR: Yes, lived at the end of Russell Street, Port Vale.
BW: He was in a shop by the Memorial, Harry’s [Evan Marks and Harry Harry – 2 shops close together].
PR: Oh yes, presented by John Bunyan 1934/1935. We’ve got John Bunyan on tape, a little bit on him. I don’t think we’ve got him on his own, I think we got a group of people together to talk about old Hertford and he was part of that group and he’d got a brother at St Albans.
BW: I don’t think he ever married, did he? He was a tallish white- haired man when I saw him last.
PR: Your John Bunyan used to have an allotment next to ours, do you remember the high brick wall on the left hand side in the Hertingfordbury Road as you go to Hatfield our house was opposite there.
BW: The villas.
PR: Yes, most of the villas had a garden the other side of the wall, allotments rented from the Marquess of Salisbury.
BW: There was a pub the other side called the Oak.
PR: That’s right. But John Bunyan, we used to call him Early White because he was always very keen on those Early White cabbages.
BW: He was a very good rifle shot.
PR: He went to wind the clocks at Hatfield House.
BW: Mr Mills who was in St Andrew Street, a little man, a great friend of mine.
PR: Hughie Mills.
BW: Hughie Mills, he used to go clock winding because when I was out of work for a week I drove him round in my little Austin 7. We went to one place where I drove across a stream. The old car just about got through it. I think if Hughie had got out it would have gone over his head. He was only a little man, Hughie and his wife Connie. In that article there it says he had no children. He didn’t but his wife did. She had a boy, he was about 12 when he passed away with infantile paralysis and he spent a lot of his life in a wheelchair. She had that boy with somebody else, and Hughie took him on.
PR: I didn’t know that. He used to come for a drink at the Ship on Old Cross. He got into a bit of a habit of closing the shop 20 minutes/half an hour early at lunchtime and without telling his wife he’d come along to the Ship and have a quick jar. And I can always see her face. She opened the door of the public bar, looked at him and said Hughie! And he dropped his pint, didn’t finish it, and went! I think she was quite a hard task master.
BW: I made a new work bench for him when I was at Beckwiths. Two pedestals for the top and a slide for his vice and all the rest of it. There were 3 drawers on each side, I was very proud of that bench. (then an inaudible bit I couldn’t make sense of.)
PR: (After retirement Hughie Mills was at Sele Farm.) He lived in a flat in Bentley Road. I think he was lonely then and didn’t have the business and I thought I’ll take an old clock to him and he’d say I’ve got my little darling back and he’d lock it up in his shed across the way. And I thought, is it safe, they would have been old family ones that I took there, nothing ever went wrong.
BW: I used to do repairs for grandfather clocks, grandmother clocks when I was at Beckwiths. I very often had to repair the long case clocks **** used to get damaged and the 2 pillars down the side and the door used to get broken. Then I made him a stand where he could put his clock movements on, the weights and pendulum without putting it back in the long case clock. (pause).
PR: We’ve got Mr Peck on this photograph. It could almost be John Bunyan, the shape of the head.
BW: There were 2 brothers Peck, Percy and Bert, I think. Percy lived up in a bungalow in Byde Street and the other one lived opposite the Cowper School.
PR: Park Road?
BW: Past where the barracks used to be.
PR: Yes, David Peck lives in the end house that row. Is he the son?
BW: Could be I suppose. Don’t know much about that one, didn’t have dealings with him.
PR: Yes, and he had a Robin Reliant, 3 wheeler thing, it caught fire in London Road. He was alright, but the car had gone and he thought he wouldn’t be able to get another one, but he has. When I worked at Farnham’s newsagents he used to come in for an Express every morning.
BW: I used to go in there for penny pencils. Remember Palmers, we used to go for some little biscuits we had at tea break [this was when Beckwiths was at Old Cross]. There was another shop a bit further round, now part of McMullen’s, I think. It was a baker’s shop and they used to sell shortbread shells. Used to go in there and get those when I was first apprenticed.
PR: That was Briden’s probably then.
BW: Yes, it was. Before it was Briden’s it was Gunn’s, I think. A tall lady in there used to serve us, about 1d or 2d I think.
PR: Eddie Palmer’s was just cakes and confectionary and Briden’s… [bread as well?]. Now., I’d better just say my formal piece into the tape recorder [at last!] to say where I am and what we’re doing. We’re at 132 Ware Road and it is the afternoon of the 1st December 2000 and I’m sitting very comfortably in his work room and there’s a landscaped garden flowing up behind us to Woodland Mount and I’ve come to find out how Bill organised his life, in general terms, through the offices of Norman Huxford at Church, a mutual friend. This house we’re sitting in means more to you than the average person’s house.
BW: My wife and I got married in January 1942 and of course war was on, I was then working at de Havillands at Hatfield and I knew I’d probably have to go in the army in a short time and we couldn’t find anywhere to live so we stayed in Raynham Street with my wife’s mother’s family until the end of the war.
I came back from the war, I’d been rather badly injured in Italy and I was discharged at the end of 1944, to work at de Havillands aircraft company – they were extremely good to me and by the end of the war we had a son, he was born in 1945. Then the rest of the (wife’s) family got married and cleared off and then because of war damage to the house Norris’ wanted my Mother in law to either up the rent or take it over and she wasn’t prepared to do that, it was a large house, 4 bedroom and it had been badly damaged when the land mine came down during the war [in Tamworth Road] so we decided to find somewhere else but we couldn’t find what we wanted. I met up with a friend, a carpenter by trade, and he said why don’t you build your own house? And I though this over, discussed it with my good lady and then we decided we’d have a go. I managed to get hold of a book which I read, I didn’t know much about building, brickwork and things like that and I started asking questions, making enquiries and talking to people and one of my other friends bet me that I couldn’t to the place.
PR: Ah, challenge is on!
BW: So, challenge I said I’ll design the place as well, that’s impossible, he said. Anyway, we thought about it and my wife was then expecting my daughter, there’s a 13 year difference between our 2 kids. And I was sitting beside her bed after our daughter was born in 1958 and a thought came to my mind, what will this place look like. I sketched it on the back of a piece of paper. I said I’m going home now and she said visiting time isn’t over yet. I said I know but I’ve got an idea and I’m going to draw this house and she said ‘oh go then’. So, I went and by 3 o’clock in the a.m. this house, as it is now was on paper. I submitted it to the council and six weeks (later) we had the land, my wife found this piece of ground, she had a word with Lord Brocket and she dealt with the paperwork. I was at work and we did manage to buy this piece of land and the man next door was Mr Pike, he sold us an extra 3 foot.
We found some bricklayers and we got plasterers, suppliers of wood and we started building at the end of ’58. We started to level things down, we had a digger and then we dug the foundations, we started building in 1959 and we moved in her in April 1960. And from then on I worked on the whole inside myself. We put the roof on, I had it tiles, I laid all the floors. I had all the decoration to do, all the kitchen units. We had no holidays for about 3 years except a few days away. I put muscles on me like a giant. My son was 13/14 so he helped. He became a surveyor then we lost him in 1974, he developed leukaemia, at the age of 29. My daughter’s still living, she’s 43 and she’s a consultant. My (wife?) passed away in ’96. We had a marriage lasting 54 years and 10 months.
PR: In the place that you had created with her.
BW: Well she helped as much as she possibly could and of course her mother moved up here with us when we left Raynham Street. She was with us for 3 years before she passed away with a heart attack, and then 3 years later my father unfortunately passed away and my mother came to live with us for 8 years. She passed away in the May and my son in August, a bad year. We kept going. My wife was absolutely marvellous, she dealt with solicitors, estate agents and the bank even the lorry drivers they respected her greatly because ****. A lot of money a pound was and we’ll do it madam, certainly madam. She was very quietly spoken, she never panicked over anything.
PR: (for future listeners) this house is not a shanty town house it’s a very prestigious house in Ware Road, very modern, one of the best houses on the street.
BW: Skim Hart was the plasterer, Chapman and Cox did the brickwork and another chap, I think his name was Brown and they made a good job of the brickwork. They seemed to want to give me the best. No problem anywhere and the metal girders that I wanted were delivered from down in the south somewhere and the Town and Country Planning people were good. The architect had turned down the 1st drawing we submitted and I had to meet the architects from County Hall and Mr Pennington was the man, he didn’t like what I’d done he wanted gable ends to match in and make it look like the Victorian houses opposite – that my grandfather worked on! He was a carpenter/joiner. They suggested to me what they’d like and I said I’d go away and redesign it.
Later I met a man up there called Mr Punter and strangely enough we both served in the same place in Italy so we had a chat together and he was extremely helpful, he sent me to a place in Fore Street to get my [lost word] printed [more lost words] and they’d want one on linen [drawings perhaps]. I got the whole lot printed for about 30 bob. They visited the site and suggested the ties between the walls [words lost] – they said there’d be a lot of traffic – they were quite right – and we’re only 60 feet from the road, we’re 6 foot above the level of the road, there can be vibration in this area so extra thick concrete which pleased the inspector.
The foundations at the front were 5 feet deep because we hit a soft spot, thrown up soil from when they dug the Ware Road and piled it up here. So, we had to find the gravel base. We had stuff delivered and it was cast all in one and it’s proved to be a good thing because we’ve had no settlement. So, it’s been up now 42 years. I put the fences up, laid the drive, then I built the garage, laid the paths. Then when we moved in, because I’d been a cabinet maker, we saw furniture – my wife said I like the look of that but it’s very expensive, so I made it. On one particular occasion she said, we’d redecorated I’d put coving round the wall, I took off the picture rail, she said I’d like a nice picture on that wall oh, I said, I’ll paint you one, they knew I couldn’t possibly paint anything so they bought me some paints and a board and a little book from Welwyn Stores called Painting for Beginners and I painted that one!
PR: That’s remarkable.
BW: I took about 4 calendars and took a picture from each and put them all together to make a picture. And I got rather interested in it. I got an unfinished one of the Barge and the Folly.
PR: That is a picture that would sell as a reproduction.
BW: We decorated the bedroom and my wife got a postcard, or a birthday card or Christmas card from somewhere and she liked the picture. I said I’ll have a go at painting that, it was only quite small and I painted it up in the bedroom.
Tape 1 side B (again some items have had to be omitted because of recording quality.) First few minutes not transcribed – very poor quality – description of making a last door for the house, in detail, in 1988.
BW: I had a new pair of gates put up some 5 years back, made by Castle of Bengeo and Mr Dick Castle made my doorframes, and his son came to measure up for the gates and I told him that his father made the doorframes. His son runs it now.
PR: (As Bill’s been talking) there’ve been all sorts of things I’ve been thinking, I mustn’t interrupt, obviously the land mine story, and your early life, before Raynham Street and the world of work. Let’s go back over you, yourself , where you were born and so on.
BW: Well, I was born in St John’s Street, Hertford in 1917, my father was in the war, 21 years in the army, he ended up as an army officer, and my mother was housekeeper at the Presbytery at the Catholic Church to Father Kuypers. And my father was stationed at the barracks in Hertford which is now where the fire station is, and they met somewhere and they married and they were married 7 years before I was born and I was about a year old when we moved to Scotland, Perth and we stayed at a place called Redford Barracks.
My father was attached to the Black Watch and he was there for a while. I started school in Perth at a school where they wore a sailor’s uniform. Then we moved to Woolwich and we were there for about a couple of years I suppose. I went to a convent school there. Mother was strict Roman Catholic. Then we moved to Chepstow (where father was an instructor?) at Chepstow Beechwood Boys’ Camp, which is now Beechwood Training School I think. [Beechwood now appears to be new housing].
I went back there after 50 years and the only place I could remember was the ruins of the old Commanding Officer’s house, it was just a derelict place with weeds growing all over it. And we lived in the village there that was called Pennsylvania, an army village and there was a farm. My father left the army there and we moved to Swansea where he’d got a friend who gave him employment for a while and then he lost that. And then my father was offered a job at 2 places Eton College as fencing master or Douai Abbey Public School, Benedictine monks and monastery just the other side of Reading.
And my mother being a strict Roman Catholic wanted my dad to take that job, which he did. We lived there and we had a country cottage and 800 acres of farmland, woods to wander over. By that time I was about 9 years old and I had to go to the village school and the head teacher there, the governess as we called her was rather against the Catholic people, so we didn’t get very well welcomed, the 3 of us, and I was there until I was 14. Then I got interested in woodwork by the master of the handicraft class. When you were 12 you could go to a handicraft class at Thatcham and they used to lay on a sort of taxi service to take us there and bring us back, then later on we used to have to go on the bus. Mr Parker was the instructor there and he said to me what are you going to do when you leave school? I said I’d like to be a woodworker. Well, be a cabinet maker he said, it’s interesting work and it’s indoors and you don’t get affected by the weather and get laid off like builder are, and carpenters.
So (as) there was nothing where we lived my mother arranged for me to come and see Mr Beckwith and my mother’s second cousin was Foreman, Mr Hines, he had a word with Mr Beckwith, I came up and I was taken on in 1931 for a month’s trial. So, he gave me the job and I stayed there for the next seven and a half years. I did 5 years apprenticeship, a year’s improver and one and a half years on top of that before the war came along and there was a question of last in, first out. I was only out of work for about 10 days and I got a job at Hatfield with de Havilland Aircraft Company and was there for the next 43 years, apart from army service. We built the Mosquito, the Air Speed Oxford, the Tiger Moth.
I spent time on flight tests and so forth, but mostly in the workshops. In 1957 I went up to Chester for a time and then I came back and then we were put on the staff later on and when I finished up in 1982 they’d replaced a deputy super-intendent with a shop foreman or senior foreman and that was the job that I was given, about 5 years before I retired. Other than that, I was a foreman and assistance foreman. And I was in plastics when the wooden aircraft finished, when they went over to all metal they put us woodworkers on the plastics, where I was for the next 35 years, 32 of them ****. And I was on night shift for a while, I went up to Chester a couple of times to sort them out up there. Then when I retired in 1982 there were discussions going on about where they were going to send a lot of the stuff from Hatfield, I could see it coming, the next 8 years and then they closed the place down and our shop is now a car park.
PR: Did you motor over to de Havillands?
BW: Yes, I did. During the war we got a ration of petrol providing we carried 2 passengers, which I did, then when I came back from the war, after I got smashed up, I cycled, I was a t Welwyn Garden City Woodfield Road then doing Mosquito wings. I left the army at the end of ’44, I went in at the beginning of ’43 and came out in ’44. I went to Bury St Edmunds and we moved around and I went to North Africa then across to Sicily and Italy and I was wounded in fighting at a place called Castle Fort, 56th London Division of the Royal Fusiliers (reason why they were there not clear). I got blown up with a mortar bomb, my injuries were rather nasty, almost lost my right hand, some other bits and pieces. I spent 2 months in hospital and then I stayed in the convalescent depot, rehabilitation, and all sorts of things until the September and they decided to send me to the army selection centre and went through all the series of tests and they brought out a ruling, so the colonel told me that if you could get a job in civvy street, they’d got so many wounded soldiers by that time that were not fit for active service but could earn a living in civvy street, they’d discharge you.
So, I was one of the lucky ones, I got out. Unfortunately, the result was that you got no pension, because I did find out afterwards that in the mad rush to get away I signed a piece of paper to say it didn’t affect my earning. When our welfare people went through it, they said if you’d got anything at all it wold be about 1/- a week (hard to hear, something about a green ticket). It took me about 2 years to get my hand working really well, the skin had been damaged, I wore a glove for about a year and to get the strength back I used to lift weights, and have a little ball in my hand and keep gripping it, and that on for nearly 3 years before I could really get going. (pause.)
PR: Now, let’s jump back again to your mother’s family, were they in Hertford?
BW: Yes, they were, my grandmother’s name was Crew and she came from out towards Luton and they were hat makers, used to do what they called the plait when she was a kid and they used to make this plait and roll it round and round into a hat. At Luton, Luton hat-makers were well known hat-makers and they used to do that to earn a living. She did didn’t go to school until she was about 12. She taught herself to read and write, she was 90 when she passed away and my grandfather died of cancer when he was about 65 I think. She brought her family up by doing washing and laying out the dead and midwife. My wife’s eldest brother, he was killed on the Somme before I was born and then my wife’s other brother, the youngest one, he was in the army, he was in Egypt for 6 years , my grandfather was in Burma, even though my father was in the army he didn’t go very far. He was in France during the war, in France in the trenches [WW1?]. We were going to India on one occasion but it was cancelled, so he didn’t go abroad at all after that.
PR: How did your mother come to be in the Presbytery?
BW: My grandmother was married to my grandfather when she was about 17 and a half and they moved to Hertford down Priory Street. And then they moved from Priory Street to St John’s Street and that’s where the whole family were brought up and then when my grandfather passed away my grandmother was told to leave there when I was living there as an apprentice and fortunately Mr Hines who was our foreman at Beckwiths decided to go in with his brother in law in Esher so he moved out of no 10 St John’s Street and it belonged to the church and my uncle Bill who my Aunt Win married and my grandmother and me moved up to no 10 because we managed to rent it from the church. Then later my uncle bought it, he bought it for £425 and it was sold recently for £185,000.
PR: Did she come because there was a straw hat manufactory at the bottom of Port Hill?
BW: No, my grandmother didn’t work there at all. When you got married you didn’t go to work unless you were a servant. My grandfather came from Uxbridge, originally, I believe. But how they got together, I don’t know, whether he joined the army before they married I’ve got no idea. He took the King’s shilling I know that.
PR: So, where do we go from her. Your schooling was..
BW: I went to 5 different schools before I was 11 years old.
PR: We traced them to the Swansea..
BW: That’s right, then I went to Beckwiths.
PR: That brings you back here in Hertford. Well, we can talk a bit about Beckwiths.
BW: On my journeys round, I developed different accents, sometimes if I’m talking to someone from somewhere I develop their accent. And of course, the last place I was at, Berkshire, I got their accent going to school there, when I first went there, they didn’t understand me, a mixture of Welsh and Cockney and all sorts. So, I picked up some of their lingo [ and I think he means he sometimes reverts to it.] My wife’s uncle was a Hampshire man and he used to say to us, which way did you come, did you come across Herne, so I said yeah I come down cross Herne (rest is lost), he looked at me and said (I think) are you having a go at me? [ Bill’s uncle had a strong local accent and Bill replied to him using the same accent.]
Anyway, Beckwiths, I started at Beckwiths in 1931 and you had to clean the windows and things like that, the shop itself, Mr Beckwith’s mother lived over the top of the shop in a flat and she had an office directly in front of the door of the shop a little cubicle place that had a desk and a telephone exchange and she suffered very badly with asthma and the extension phone to the works office would sometimes ring and if you listened to it carefully you would hear Mrs Beckwith breathing because she listened to every phone call.
PR: What was the work, did the shop sell antiques?
BW: The main job that Mr Beckwith used to do was antique restoration, then we used to make things for people, we made a load of wardrobes for the County Hospital, there were a lot of big houses around here that we used to do all sorts of jobs for, we’d lay parquet flooring, then we used to re-polish things, we used to go and collect curtain rails. We had an upholstery department in Fore Street on the corner of South Street – there was a place there, Spencer Clark and they was our Fore Street people, they used to re-upholster stuff there.
Sometimes we’d have the job of stripping a chair off and repairing the frame, you might have to do some wood turning. We had a universal machine but most of the work was hand work. The wages were only quite small, the foreman only got £4 a week. When I finished my time I only got 1/2d an hour, 50 hour week. Mainly we worked in a workshop, which is still there, it’s now the showroom, I think and we used to do work for, we’d buy stuff at sales and we’d do it up, people brought stuff in that had been smashed or busted, like chairs and we used to go to High Wycombe and get chairs replaced and we used to go to Tottenham Court Road and get furniture from there, get it as a subcontract from there. Bill Goby (?) was our French polisher, but we all did French polishing – we used to see the job right through and quite often if you did the job you went with Mr Beckwith when it was delivered. It was very interesting work but it wasn’t very well paid.
PR: Did he found the business then?
BW: No, it was his father. They came originally from Coggeshall, they were Essex people you could tell that from the governor’s accent. But Mr William Beckwith, he died before I started there, and Mr Beckwith who was the son, of Beckwith & Son, he was the son, and he took the business over and carried on with it until he passed away after the war.
PR: There was a Beckwith rose growing nursery somewhere in the Lee Valley.
BW: No, they’re not related. Beckwith the rose grower used to live at the corner of Railway Street.
PR: Did he?
BW: Yes, because my wife when she was expecting my daughter, used his telephone! That’s where he was that became a hairdresser and now it’s a doctor’s.
PR: There was a chap called Ron Beckwith.
BW: That’s the son of Mr Beckwith. He used to be at the Grammar School.
PR: He was very friendly with Philip Turnbull, the parson, he was a bit older than you but grammar school friendship I think. Do you know Ron Beckwith?
BW: Ron Beckwith was very friendly with Mr Drury the son of George that took over the shop. They used to play tennis together – they won quite a lot of prizes, they were very good tennis players. But Ron Beckwith wouldn’t go in the business with his father, he went into Gillette Industries with Uncle Ernie, that was Mr Beckwith’s brother and Mr Ernie Beckwith was overseas traveller for Gillette Industries and Ron went with him. What Ron finishes up as I don’t know, but I think he moved up to Norfolk when he retired, I don’t know if he’s still alive, even, he’s older than me, he must be, if he’s still around, about 86, 87 [Ron actually lived at Twickenham and later was interviewed by HOHG].
PR: And did they live in North Crescent?
BW: 21 North Road, yes. We were working in there one day, Bill Goby was doing some work on the upstairs floor and Mr Beckwith had just had the paper hanger in, actually, and Bill Goby was working upstairs and there was a terrific crash and when we looked into the room where he was, his foot was sticking through the ceiling and I always remember a black shoe and suspender on it.
END OF TAPE
TAPE 2, SIDE A
PR: We’ll just do another little bit and then I’ll get out of your way, perhaps another 20 minutes or so. (pause)
Bill shows photographs.
BW: That is my mother, with me on her lap.
PR: Oh, yes, about 1920 or …
PR: You look a pretty intelligent lad. Similarities aren’t there!
BW: Well I was like my mother’s family, I’m not a bit like my father. My father was quite a handsome man, he’d got a longer face, steel grey eyes, and mine were green when I was younger. People used to say when I was young that they were rather frightening.
PR: Beckwith’s tell me about the workshop that is now a showroom, where was it? Under the archway, did they have a shop either side of the archway?
BW: When you go over Mill Bridge now, from the town, walk over Mill Bridge, on the right is the Woolpack pub, used to be called the New Bridge Inn. And before you get there the bridge goes round a flower bed, or there was. Look to your right, look down the river. On your left is the Woolpack, behind that is a building and there’s another building across the other way, with the river beside it. The building that was fore and aft as I call it, that was the workshop, now made into a showroom for the people who’ve now got Beckwiths. At one time it was a mineral water factory and then they built the New Bridge Inn they chopped a bit of it off and that end wall towards the road is wood and the other cross bit that came down to the river was Wilkinsons, printers. Mr Wilkinson and his daughter used to run that.
PR: Used to live in West Street, 41.
BW: Did she eve marry?
BW: That’s strange because I saw her in the town, is she still alive?
PR: No, but she died not too long ago.
BW: Well she was in town, my wife and I were walking along and my little boy was about 3 and this woman came towards us and she smiled at me. I couldn’t quite remember, and she’d gone before I remembered but she never used to talk to us as boys. She would talk to Mr Beckwith but she wouldn’t talk to us.
PR: There was a brother.
BW: Yes, Noel, he was in the Rifle Club for a time. He was quite a big chap, tall.
PR: Joan was slimmer.
BW: She was about 5’4” of 3”, something like that, used to see her every morning.
PR: No, she was very shy.
BW: I wondered if she ever got married.
PR: She lived next door to the Hebbes who used to keep the station bookstall in West Street. I knew the mother but not the father.
BW: The father was a little dark man with a little moustache, used to wear a trilby hat. Then of course, there was Hoare the dentist, and Addams Yard for coke, and on the right was Hart’s Dairy and that became the Labour Exchange at one time.
PR: We were talking to John Hart the other day he’s still about and was telling us about bringing cattle up from Hartham.
BW: Yes, the cattle sheds were out the back and later on when it was the Labour Exchange, that was where you had to stand and wait for your money, out there. I only went there once I never did get any money. I had to sign papers. Then there was Dickson/Dixon, leather worker, right next to Beckwiths then further along on the corner was Bryants, grocers shop, and the story with him was, he had a tin on the counter for the blind and when it was full up he had a new sunblind fitted! On the other side of the road was Durrants the chemist, Hugmans pork butchers. Farther along was the Post Office, next to that was Turners the sports shop, something else where there’s a chemist shop there now.
PR: There used to be a wool shop.
BW: Then further up there was Glinsters the sweet shop, the Mills [then confused talking].
PR: When the doodle bug dropped in the war his mother was living above the shop and the wall fell across and broke her legs. The son shot himself on the Meads [cannot hear who this is] in the time when other businesses were coming in, the first supermarket and so on.
BW: Who was that?
PR: Sonny Bryant.
BW: Oh, lived up this way somewhere didn’t he? The son? I didn’t know what happened to him, you say he shot himself?
PR: Yes, I can remember him.
BW: The shop went downhill after his father passed away when he took it over, then it closed down. I’d gone from there long before that.
PR: Yes, it was well after the war. Right, let’s do the Raynham Street bit and the bomb.
BW: As a matter of fact, I was talking to my brother in law yesterday, he confirmed what I was saying about it. It was 1940 and I parked my car outside and I’d been to the Home Guard, we’d just started up the Home Guard, LDV it was originally, Local Defence Volunteers. I’d got a rifle and 10 rounds of ammunition, I think and he [brother in law?] came along the road in the black out and it was bright moonlight if I remember rightly and my brother in law used to work at Addis’s and he was a tool maker and he came along the road, trotted along the road and he said “look up there” and pointed up in the air and looked up and just got a glimpse of something white, something light, and I thought it was a parachute and that just disappeared over the top and they said, someone said there were 2 parachutes, I don’t remember that, there was only one as far as I recall, but I only got a glimpse of it.
So, at that time we were level with the passage between 14 & 12 [Raynham Street], that was Harrison and we just got into the entrance of there, I grabbed the rifle out the car, went in and at the end of the passage there were 2 gates, one into our place, 14, and one into 12 and we were inside those gates, when it went off. It was those gates that saved our lives because had we gone through those gates we’d have got killed, no doubt about that. All the windows were blown right in, the glass, the frames, the whole lot, the back door was blown off, the ceilings came down, the gas stove shifted, the water turned on, and the only actually casualty, my mother had a cut on her chin. My wife was in the hall, and all the clothing on the hall stand went up the stairs, the glass in the front door cracked, but didn’t shatter, and she was standing right beside it. So we were very lucky and my brother in law said the only thing he couldn’t understand was, when he got undressed later on ‘cos I took them down to St John Street and we spent the night in the cellar, when he got undressed the next day to change his clothes he hadn’t got a single button left on his shirt. Every button disappeared. I got soaking wet down one side and I got a bump on my head, and we walked over the back door, because that was laying flat and my sister in law took things in her stride as she usually did but the next day, when we went back, I took them home for the night in the cellar of No 10 (St John’s Street) because my uncle had reinforced it with uprights and we stayed the night in there and when I took them back the next day, the mess, all the beds were covered in plaster, glass stuck in the pillows.
So I went down to Botsfords and got a couple of rolls of felt and some nails and I covered all the downstairs windows with felt and then my father in law turned up, because he was in the navy at the time and he came home on leave, and the family moved up with some friends up in Brickendon. Brickendon Place, there was a school up there at the time and the chap there they stayed with was the gardener. They were there for the next 2/3 weeks.
BW: Brickendonbury, yes.
PR: And it was a couple of weeks or more to get the place.
BW: They stayed there 3 weeks and by that time the squad had come round and tidied it up and put some new frames and glass in and so forth. I was working all hours over at the factory, doing 95 hours a week and then we got bombed as well, 21 people killed at the factory. I was in the next shop and the machine gun bullets were hitting the floor around my feet, so it was the 2nd time I missed out. Chap working with me, Geoff Antrobus, big fella him and I were running along and he was jumping up in the air because of those bullets. They chipped the floor, we saw afterwards where they’d chipped the floor because they’d come through the roof, the rear gunner, I suppose.
It came down at Hertingfordbury Farm and the farmer there was Hughie Mills’ brother in law, I think his wife’s sister’s husband and he was going after them with a shot gun. Anyway, they crashed down there somewhere and they surrendered. It turned out that the chap who was flying the thing was an ex student at Hatfield and he came round to give the people a chance to get out before he did his bombing round. That’s the story, whether it was true or not I don’t know. There was a lot of criticism of the Chief of Police at the factory because they said he was told there was an aircraft about but he took no notice and sounded the alarm a bit late. One of those stories, you never know if it’s true or not. 21 people killed there, the foreman and charge hand were never found at all, the bomb landed right at their feet and they never found a trace of 2 men.
PR: So, when it came down at the farm, what was the crew, one, or more? Were they arrested?
BW: 3, yes. Became prisoners of war. I think that’s how it worked. I got it from Hughie Mills’ brother in law. I think it had some effect on that chap, he couldn’t make a success of the farm afterwards [official report: pilot Oberleutnant Siegward Fiebig and 3 crew members. 2 taken to Hertford Police Station and pilot + 1 to Hatfield Police Station – see end transcript].
PR: I’ve got a painting at home in my kitchen that I bought from the Art Society of that arrest, I mean it’s a picturesque re-creation with the aircraft in the background and the chap, I think it’s just one being brought forward. I was trying to think who it was painted by and whether that, I have a funny feeling that the person was [from] de Havillands. I did read 2/3 years ago that he’d died. He lived out in the Hatfield direction but was a member of Hertford Art Society and was in their exhibition. It’s interesting to get the background to that.
BW: I was told there was 3 chaps. I never saw them of course.
PR: You’re likely to know, and this wasn’t meant to be a historically accurate picture.
BW: [During the time] my parents lived in Kent my father was a special constable and his boss was West German, and he used to be a police dog trainer, my dad was, and he took over the kennels and the running of 3 farms. He packed up the college and went down there in 1936/7 and he stayed there till he died he was 80. When he died, he went blind, same thing, glaucoma, I got both, diabetes and the eye. He could speak fairly good German and they used to say to him if any aircraft was shot down over there and the local police ****, he used to go over there and talk to them [he acted as interpreter?]. And I believer he had a flying jacket given to him by one of the German pilots. And 2/3 times he went down to help out to interpret.
PR: Where were they?
BW: Penshurst is where they were but I think he went to Tonbridge or Tunbridge Wells but he was in the local, I’ve still got his steel helmet upstairs. My son in law’s got his eye on it.
PR: You told me that you remember Tiddly Ted Salmon.
BW: In Raynham Street.
PR: Was his wife called Tris?
BW: I don’t know, Mrs Salmon I would know her as.
PR: He was at the Post Office.
BW: He was Postmaster, yes and they used to come in at night sometimes, him and Phil Botsford, and 2/3 others and they’d be outside and say shh – don’t wake her up. We used to get up to the front bedroom window and listen to them sometimes!
PR: 13 Raynham Street. Well, we’d better stop. I’ll have to run because I’ve got to get to the Council Offices before they all go home. That’s very valuable.
BW: Are you sure? Well if anyone else wants a chat I’m always available.
PR: Well, I’m going to be in their good books because for once I haven’t interrupted as much as I usually do.
BW: You’ve just let me talk. Has my voice recorded all right?
PR: Oh, I think so, yes.
They go upstairs to see a picture. Tape left running downstairs with no recording until it runs out, about 8 minutes.
[de Havilland bombing etc; Account and details “Hatfield at War” by Brian G. Lawrence, Bel_ Publications, St Albans 1995].